The boy sat before the fire, knees drawn up to his chest, listening to the rough talk of the men around him. They were all veterans of many battles, and they traded tales of past glories and old defeats. The boy stared wide-eyed into the fire, gripping the handle of the old sword he'd been given that day. One of the veterans, a scarred one-eyed man, looked down at him.
"'Ere, boy," he said. "What brings a young lad like you to the front?"
"M-my da," the boy answered. "He was killed by a murder party on his way back from town. When the call went out for a militia..." he looked down, trying to hide his fear.
The one-eyed man smiled, not unkindly. "You thought you'd join up and avenge yer da."
The boy nodded.
"And now yer here, yer wonderin' why ye just din' stay home."
The boy nodded again. A single tear made its way down his cheek.
"Ah, don't worry now, son," the old veteran laid a comforting hand on the boy's shoulder. "We here was all like you once. You stick close to us come tomorrow, and we'll get ya through. Right lads?"
A rough chorus of grunts came from around the fire, but when the boy looked up, he saw them all smiling at him.
"Besides," an old man across from him said, "ye'll be fightin' fer Lord Rath, an' there ain't no better place to be in battle than on the side of Lord Rath the Bold."
The other men agreed heartily, each having a tale to tell of the heroic Lord Rath.
"Folks say he's the son of the War God, Zenus," one of the men said. "And that's why he doesn't age and won't ever die."
"Nah," the one-eyed man said, "he was carved from stone at the beginning of time, and given life by the great Goddess Urea."
The old man laughed. "Yer all a buncha fools and children. I bin fightin' fer Lord Rath since I was younger than the boy here, and I know his true story." Seeing he had an audience, the old man settled back against the rock he'd sat on, lighting his pipe. He blew out a thin stream of smoke. "First thing ya gotta know is, Lord Rath ain't immortal. Oh, he's a tough one ta kill, no denyin', and he don't age like we do. I'd say he's aged 10 years in the 50 I bin fightin' for 'im." His eyes focused on times past, the old man smiled. "Ah, but he's a good man. Brought years o' peace to this land of ours, he has, and--"
"Now Fergus," a deep voice settled on their circle from above, "you're going to swell my head so large with this kind of talk, I'll make an easy target for the Mad Wizard's archers tomorrow."
The men scrambled to get to their feet, but Lord Rath motioned them to remain seated. "No no lads, stay where you are. I just thought I'd come around and check on the men."
It was clear that, while they'd come to expect such treatment, the men felt singularly honored. They ran fingers through their hair and over their scalps, smiling and looking proud of themselves. "Oh, uh, doing just fine, my Lord." "Oh aye, all's well, Lord Rath." "Just waitin' for the morrow, sir."
Lord Rath flashed his own smile. "Good to hear, good to hear. Not too late tonight, men. We meet the Mad Wizard's forces tomorrow, and we've still half a day's march to get there." He was about to move on, when his gaze fell on the boy. "Here now, who might this strapping lad be?"
The one-eyed veteran clapped the boy on the back with a chuckle. "He's our newest recruit, Lord. Come to avenge his da."
Lord Rath turned serious, kneeling down next to the boy. "Your father," he said quietly. "He was killed by the Mad Wizard?"
The boy nodded, clearly overwhelmed by his proximity to the legendary Lord Rath. "Y-yes, my Lord. B-by one of his m-m-murder parties, Lord."
Lord Rath bowed his head, a look of sorrow mingled with guilt passing across his face. "I'm sorry, my boy. Such things should not happen in my land." He fixed a steely gaze upon the boy. "You have my word, son. Tomorrow, your father will be avenged."
The boy managed a weak smile. "Y-yes, my Lord. Th-thank you."
Lord Rath reached out for the boy's sword. He held it up, looking it over with a critical eye. "A stout blade," he said, handing it back. "No doubt a match for the heart of the one who wields it." He smiled down at the boy, who smiled proudly back up at him.
When Lord Rath was gone, the other men all spoke at once, beaming with pride at their visit from Lord Rath. "Well, boy," the old man winked at him. "A high honor indeed, and a mark of good fortune, on the eve of your first battle. Many men here would give much for a blessing from Lord Rath himself."
The boy just nodded, though he spent a great deal of time studying his sword while the men went back to telling their tales.
Later, as the fire dwindled to embers, the boy wiped blood from the blade of his dagger, slipping it back into its concealed sheath. The men around the fire appeared to be sleeping, and it would take close inspection by a keen eye to see their slit throats by the light of the dying fire.
Tossing the old sword into the brush, the boy made his way through the camp of slumbering men to the grand tent at its center. It would be a simple matter to sneak under the flap of the tent. Lord Rath's guards were half asleep at their posts. And the poison he'd coated the hilt of his sword with, poison he was immune to, should have the great lord himself in a deep slumber from which he would never awake.
A few moments later, the boy exited the tent the way he'd entered, making for the depths of the forest. His master would be pleased. When the army found their legendary commander the next morning with his throat slit, all the fight would surely go out of them, leaving this land ripe for the Mad Wizard's taking.